Forty-two years Herb Goldblum had worked for
Sanitation, and in all that time every garbage truck he'd seen had had
tires. But when he walked outside to pick up the paper on a Monday morning
in May, a mere five months after his retirement, he discovered things
had changed. The truck in front of the house had a hull, a greenish-gray
hull like on a boat, that shimmied like when the road was hot. Also
unusual was that on the truck's side, where it should have said DEPARTMENT
OF SANITATION and CITY OF LOS ANGELES, someone had painted a big yellow
Herb only had a moment to take all this in. Then
the door on the truck's curb side swung open and smashed into the fender
of Herb's beloved '51 Buick.
"Hey!" Herb yelled. "Look what you did to my
car!" He hurried out into the street to inspect the damage.
"Sorry, Mr. Goldblum," said the tall, crewcut
guy manning the truck.
"Just look at this scratch. More than forty years
I've had this car, and you come along in your crazy truck and scratch
"I said I was sorry," Crewcut said. He wasn't
Herb's usual garbage man. Something was funny about him, but Herb couldn't
figure out what. "Why don't you get on the truck with me and we'll talk
"You come down here and we'll talk about it."
A buzzer went off in the truck. Crewcut shook
his head. "Not today, I guess," he said. He slammed the door and ground
the transmission into gear.
And the truck disappeared. One second it was
stuck into Corinth Avenue like a raisin in rice pudding, the next the
blacktop was empty. "Hey, come back, you!"
"What's the racket?" It was Herb's wife Mimi,
in the front doorway, wrapping her blue housecoat around her.
"When I worked for Sanitation," Herb said, "drivers
were careful. They didn't smash people's cars."
Mimi came out to the curb. "Who smashed the car,
He took a second to answer. "It was a garbage
truck. Except ..."
Now he took two seconds. "It had a hull."
"A hull? You mean like on a boat? What kind of
truck has a hull?"
"This truck. This truck had a hull." Suddenly
Herb realized what was off about Crewcut. "Also the fella on it had
too many teeth." Another pause. "And he knew my name. How come he knew
Mimi gave him a look. "Darling. If you say it
had a hull, it had a hull. If you say the man had too many teeth, he
had too many teeth." She wagged her finger at the scratch. "In any case,
you shouldn't let this go. You should receive satisfaction."
"That's exactly what I'm going to receive." Herb
inspected the fender again. "Look at my Buick. It's ruined!"
* * *
Herb and Mimi arrived downtown at the Department of
Sanitation at eleven-thirty. A young woman with bright orange hair sat
at a desk, reading a paperback book. Herb told this girl what had happened.
She rolled her eyes, making the ring in her nose do a little dance,
and said they should see Mr. Riordan, the Community Affairs Officer.
They shouldn't have come barging in without an appointment, but they
could wait and see if he was available after the meeting he was in.
An hour later they still sat on a hard wooden bench.
Herb held Mimi's hand in one of his and absently patted it with the
other. A man in a suit came out of an office. He was maybe in his thirties
but going gray already. He winked at the receptionist. "I'm going to
lunch, Suzanne," he said. The girl said something Herb couldn't make
out and pointed at Herb and Mimi.
The man came over. "Hello, I'm Charles Riordan." His
eyes jumped this way and that. "I'm going to delay my lunch to see you."
Was he expecting them to thank him? Fat chance. "Why don't you tell
me what the trouble is?"
"Your garbagemen came on a boat and wrecked my Buick,"
Mr. Riordan put on a big serious look and sat on the
bench next to Mimi. "Tell me the whole story."
So Herb did. When he finished Mr. Riordan said, "Mrs.
Goldblum, did you see this boat, too?"
She sat up straighter. "No. But if my Herb says he
saw it, he saw it."
"You think I'm a crazy old man," Herb said.
"I think no such thing," Mr. Riordan replied.
It didn't matter. All Herb wanted was to get his Buick
fixed. "Someone should come take a look."
"I'll send a man," Mr. Riordan said. "And when Sanitation
says it will send a man, Sanitation sends a man."
* * *
Friday morning the crazy truck came again. "Good morning,
Herb," Crewcut said. "Come take a ride. We'll take care of the scratch."
Herb shook his head. "Mr. Riordan said he'll send a
man." Crewcut tried to convince him some more, and while he did Herb
tried to get a good look at his teeth. But that buzzer came again, and
the truck disappeared.
Herb went back into the house. Mimi stood in the doorway.
"Why are you walking around with such a meshugge expression?"
"It's the fella up on TUSH-14."
"What fella? What's this about tushes?"
"I want to find out what's going on with these hulls."
"Herb, there are no hulls."
"First that girl didn't believe me," Herb said. "Then
Mr. Riordan, and now my own wife of forty-six years." He shook his head.
"I'm going to go lie down. Wake me if a man comes from Sanitation."
* * *
But no man came. Not that day, not over the weekend,
not on Monday.
On Tuesday the truck came back. And Herb was ready
for it. He'd packed a lunch and slid a seltzer bottle into the keep-cool
thing his son Norman had given him. The thing had a hull; maybe he would
be going on a cruise. When the truck appeared out of thin air in front
of his house he grabbed his provisions. He took one step and stopped.
"You're not the Angel of Death or anything, are you?"
Crewcut laughed and shook his head. "Come on, Herb.
Just get on. You know you want to."
Herb nodded and stepped off the curb. Crewcut opened
the door, carefully this time, making sure it didn't touch the Buick.
Herb got in. As soon as the door closed everything outside turned a
soft, smooth black, like they were inside a big velour bag. Even though
Herb couldn't feel any vibration or anything, he knew they were going
somewhere. He tried to make small talk. Crewcut just kept telling him
to wait until they got there. Herb asked where "there" was but he wouldn't
Herb drank a little seltzer. Then he got sleepy. The
next thing he knew Crewcut was shaking him awake. "Come on, Herb, we're
The black bag was gone. The truck was outside a building,
one out of a Buck Rogers comic strip. But, strange as it was, Herb had
been in the Sanitation Department long enough to know one thing. It
was a civil service building. It had that look.
Herb picked up his shopping bag and got down off the
truck. They went inside and took the elevator to eleven. Everybody he
saw wore garbageman's outfits, coveralls and boots and thick gloves,
with white paper masks around their necks. And most of them looked a
little off, like Crewcut. Some had great big bat ears or no ears at
all, and some just had holes in the middle of their faces where their
noses should have been. Some were taller than Wilt Chamberlain and some
were shorter than Billy Barty. One fella looked like Eddie Cantor, except
he was blue.
They entered an office where a man about Herb's age
with a big white ponytail sat behind a desk. He, too, wore a garbageman
suit. He came out from behind the desk and held out his hand. "Hello,
Herb," he said. "My name is Ed. I'm in charge here."
Herb shook Ed's hand, which had a couple too many fingers.
"Hello," he said. "So where's here?"
"You're in Trans-Universal Sanitation Headquarters
for Sector Fourteen," he said. "TUSH-14," he added proudly.
"You mean in outer space someplace?"
"Fifteen thousand light-years from Earth."
"So these are all space people?"
Ed nodded. "I am from the seventh planet of Antares."
He gestured at Crewcut. "Victor, here, is from Deneb Six. But enough
about us. Let's talk about you. We had such a hard time getting you
"Well," Herb said, "you should have just come to the
door. Like a mensch you should have asked, and I would have come.
Why all this weirdness with hulls in my street for just long enough
to convince my wife I'm a lunatic?"
"The hulls were the only way to get to Earth quickly
enough. But they only can achieve equilibrium there for a minute or
two. And we were lucky we had them lying around the warehouse in the
"Six months ago we ordered some Gulls, Radioactive
Trash-Eating, Assorted Colors. But what came was Hulls, Space-Bending,
"Gulls, you wanted."
"Sure. We were going to send them over to Altair Three
to scavenge in the Rubbish Pits of Dribzl. Instead we were stuck with
these hulls. We've been trying to return them ever since. You were in
Sanitation, you know how hard it is to get Purchasing to do anything
right. But we're wasting time. Herb, we need your help."
"You need my help? What about my Buick?"
"You take care of this for us, and we'll take care
of your Buick. Come."
Ed led him out of the office and down the ball. Herb
felt stupid schlepping his shopping bag around but didn't know
what else to do with it. They took another elevator up, dozens and dozens
of floors, then traipsed down another hall. They came to a gold door
with a picture of a garbage can in red. It slid open and they all went
Inside, a bunch of men and girls in garbage suits watched
television screens showing pictures of people doing garbage activities.
Picking up trash, working at the dump, that kind of thing. And while
here at TUSH they were all more or less regular men and women, some
of the workers on the screens had horns or fins or looked like pieces
"This is where the Trans-Universal Balance of Garbage
is controlled," Ed said.
"The what?" Herb asked.
"You might know it as the Trans-Universal Balance of
"No, that doesn't ring a bell either."
"It's like this," Ed said. "All the garbage flow
in the universe has to come into balance. See that?" He pointed at a
thing on the wall like an applause meter from the radio days. Herb nodded.
"That's the Master Indicator," Ed said. "If that goes
into the red at either end, the Balance of Garbage is off and bad things
"What kind of bad things?"
"You've heard of the Big Bang?" Ed clapped Herb on
the shoulder. "But enough chitchat. There's a serious garbage situation
on Earth, and we need you to fix it. It involves that Riordan guy and
that Suzanne girl. They have this scheme to take all the city's garbage
and truck it out to the desert and mold it into a giant historical monument.
You could see it from the moon, if you guys hadn't given up on the moon
so soon. They're going to put a giant theme park inside. Historyland.
Riordan figures he can make a name for himself and move up. Actually
Suzanne's the one who came up with the idea, and she's leading Riordan
around by his pecker to get it put in place. Our computer shows this
plan will upset the Balance of Garbage. It also says you, with your
intimate knowledge of the sanitation department, are the only one who
can go in and fix things."
Herb thought about it a second. "Okay," he said. "I've
been sitting on my tuchis long enough since I retired. But after
I save the universe, you fix the scratch on my Buick."
"Didn't I already say I would? I'm a man of my word."
They shook on it. "Now," Ed said, "we need to be able to communicate
with you." He took a silver thing like a golf ball from his pocket.
"This is a Mark Seventy-three subspace communicator." Herb held out
his hand for it, but Ed shook his head. "It needs shielding from cosmic
Herb pulled the seltzer bottle from his shopping bag.
"How about this?" Ed took the bottle, looked it over, and handed it
and the golf ball thing to Victor. "Here, go make this work," he said.
"This isn't in my job description," Victor said. But
he took a big pipe wrench out of his pocket, and half a minute later,
handed the seltzer bottle back.
"All right then," Herb said. "Send me on my big mission."
* * *
Herb walked slowly up and down the corridors at Sanitation
headquarters, checking what was the same and what had changed. He carried
the seltzer bottle with the radio thing in his shopping bag. He'd also
brought a little supper, and some of that blue ice stuff to keep everything
At a little before five he went to the old storeroom
on Twelve. He ate half his egg salad sandwich and some carrot sticks.
He stayed inside until he was pretty sure everyone had gone home. He
was about to sneak out and start investigating when he heard voices
out in the hall. The door rattled. "Sssh," said a man's voice.
"You're such a wuss," a girl said.
Herb grabbed his things and hid in a closet. He left
the door open a crack. Suzanne came in, followed by Mr. Riordan. Suzanne
plopped herself down on the couch and took off her blouse. She had a
big tattoo of a lizard on her chest. Mr. Riordan removed his jacket
and tie. Suzanne began to unhook her brassiere.
"Ed calling Herb!" said the seltzer bottle, loud and
clear as day. "Ed calling Herb on Earth!"
Herb picked up the shopping bag. "Sssh," he told it.
The door flew open, and there was Mr. Riordan, naked
except for green boxer shorts with gold dollar signs on them.
"What are you doing here?" he asked.
"Tell him you're moonlighting as a janitor," the seltzer
Mr. Riordan jerked his head. "Who else is in there?"
"He's a ventriloquist," the seltzer bottle said.
Mr. Riordan grabbed Herb by the arm and hauled him
out of the closet. Suzanne, who had finished undoing her brassiere,
stood by the couch. Herb took one look at her chest and decided maybe
a ring in the nose wasn't quite so bad.
"It's you!" she said. She didn't seem to care that
her bust was uncovered.
"Go get her, Herb," said the seltzer bottle.
"Enough ventriloquism," Mr. Riordan said.
Herb glared at Suzanne and Mr. Riordan. "I know about
your little scheme and I'm going to tell the authorities. Worse, you
never sent a man."
Suddenly Suzanne pulled something from her purse and
aimed it at Herb.
"Why are you pointing that stapler at me?" Herb asked.
"This isn't just a stapler, you old geezer.
It's also a death ray beam. Watch."
Suzanne directed the stapler at Mr. Riordan's jacket
and squeezed it. Its end glowed, and a shot of greenish light jumped
out and flashed over to the jacket, which burst into purple flames.
Five seconds later there was nothing there, not even ashes.
"That was an Armani," Mr. Riordan said.
"Tough," Suzanne said. Then, to Herb, "The people who
hired me want to see this garbage plan work. I'm going to get a lot
of money if it does."
Mr. Riordan looked shocked. "I thought you were helping
me with this because you love me."
Suzanne laughed wildly. "You corporation-climbing bozo,
I'm only in it for the money. If this thing goes through I'll have enough
to open my own piercing parlor."
She turned back to Herb. "Now, old man, I don't really
know what to do with you. You don't seem like a bad old guy. But you
probably won't be around that much longer anyway and --"
"I had a checkup a month ago," Herb said. "Dr. Rothman
said I was in perfect health for a man my age."
"There's no reason to kill him," Mr. Riordan said.
"We could just get him to agree to keep quiet and --"
"Will you shut up?" Suzanne said, motioning at him
with her hand. Only, as she did, the jaws of the stapler snapped together
and the glow came and then the beam. Mr. Riordan had the dumbest expression
on before he disintegrated.
"Oops," Suzanne said.
"Now you're a murderer, young lady," Herb said.
"Oh, well. As long as I've knocked him off, it won't
be any worse if I take care of you."
They stared at each other for a few moments. "All right,
then," Herb said. "But would you grant an old man a last meal?"
For the first time there was something nice in her
eyes. "I guess that would be all right. But no tricks."
Herb sat at a table and pulled out the other half sandwich.
He carefully laid out the remaining carrot sticks on a napkin. Suzanne
watched him closely as she shrugged on her blouse, never letting the
stapler's aim leave him. He took out his apple, rubbed it with a napkin,
and set it carefully beside the carrot sticks. He brought out his cup.
He reached in for his seltzer bottle and pulled it out of the bag.
Then he took careful aim and schpritzed the
Green and purple sparks jumped every which way. Suzanne
squeezed the stapler, but that only made the sparks longer. She yelled
and dropped it and stuck her fingers in her mouth.
Herb jumped up and wrestled her onto the sofa. She
was strong for such a little girl, but Herb managed, and soon she was
lying face-down on the sofa and he was sitting on top of her.
"You've ruined everything," she whined.
"This is a matter of opinion," Herb said.
"Now I'll never have my own piercing parlor."
"Who put you up to this? Who would make an innocent
girl do such a thing?"
"Some space guys," Suzanne said. "They called themselves
"Oy," said the seltzer bottle.
* * *
"You know how communications with Arcturus are," said
Ed's voice from the seltzer bottle, which sat on Herb and Mimi's dining
room table. "Real spotty."
"No, this I didn't know," Mimi said.
"They are," Ed said. "Anyway, this guy out at the sub-office
there got the idea that this Historyland thing would make a big spike
in the Galaxy-Wide Index of Piles of Trash, which would look real good
on his quarterlies, and he might get promoted and get away from Arcturus,
which as everyone knows is a nice place to visit but you wouldn't want
to live there."
"I see," Mimi said.
"So this guy contacts Suzanne to set things up. He
files his report, but it gets lost in transit and we never see it here
at TUSH HQ, and that's why you and she ended up at cross-purposes."
"You think it's okay I let her go?" Herb asked.
"Sure," Ed said. "She really wasn't a bad girl."
"A little meshugge, maybe," Mimi said.
"She did zetz Mr. Riordan," Herb said. "I feel
a little bad about that."
"He's not exactly dead," Ed said. "He's just bouncing
around some other dimensional plane. Anyway, all's well that ends well,
so I guess I'll just --"
"Wait," Herb said. "What about our car? Who's going
to make good on the damages?"
"Oh, that," Ed said. "No problem."
"You'll fix it?"
"We'll send a man. And when Sanitation says it will
send a man, Sanitation sends a man." He broke the connection.
Herb and Mimi looked at each other with long faces.
Then Herb smiled. "I can live with a little scratch," he said. "As long
as I've got my lovely wife, and the universe is saved, a scratch is
not a problem." He kissed Mimi on the forehead, and went off into the
kitchen to heat up some soup.
One day, as I was dragging garbage cans out to the curb, the image of
a ship steaming down the middle of my residential street popped into
my head. This story, which Tangent called "inventive, well
written, and joyful," is the result. It appeared in Tales
of the Unanticipated #19, August 1998/July 1999. Copyright ©
1998 Nathan Walpow.